The move came days after the Chinese government confirmed the arrest of Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist working for Chinese state media. China confirmed on Tuesday that Cheng was being held over suspected state security violations.
She was “suspected of carrying out criminal activities endangering China’s national security,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in Beijing. The allegations, which give authorities broad powers to hold suspects for months without charge or access to a lawyer, are among the most serious ever brought against a foreign journalist in China.
It is the first time since 1973 that Australian media has no correspondents in the country, with both the ABC and The Sydney Morning Herald setting up their China bureaus in that year.
Peter Ellingsen, who was The Age’s China correspondent from 1988 to 1991 and witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre, said the Chinese government had always tried to shield itself from foreign correspondents.
“What has changed is that China has become immensely powerful and Xi Jinping is taking them to the brink,” he said.
“The fact that Bill Birtles and Mike Smith have effectively been expelled – it’s just appalling … in some ways it’s brought home to people in Australia what has been happening for a long time.”
The move by Chinese authorities to interview Smith and Birtles came days after the Chinese government confirmed the arrest of Cheng.
The arrest of Cheng sparked Australian diplomats in China to caution both journalists they should leave China. Advice to their media organisations led to them booking flights to Australia for their correspondents.
Seven uniformed officers simultaneously visited the homes of Smith in Shanghai and Birtles in Beijing at 12.30am on Thursday. The reporters were told they were banned from leaving the country and needed to organise a time to be questioned.
Birtles then sought refuge in Australia’s Beijing diplomatic compound for five days while Smith went to the Shanghai consulate.
After high-level negotiations between Australian and Chinese officials, the reporters were interviewed by China’s Ministry of State Security in a hotel room – rather than a police station or government office – and allowed to leave the country on Monday night.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday said China still welcomed foreign journalists and police were following “normal enforcement laws” when they sought to question Birtles and Smith. “So long as journalists follow the law they have nothing to worry about,” foreign affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said.
The pair were the only journalists working for Australian media organisations in China. The Australian newspaper’s China correspondent, Will Glasgow, is currently in Australia and was due to return to Beijing shortly. The federal government has advised against sending him back.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have been waiting since November for Chinese authorities to approve a visa for Beijing correspondent, Eryk Bagshaw. In July they were advised the visa would not be approved this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The national editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Tory Maguire, said the treatment of Birtles and Smith was “deeply concerning, and has made it almost impossible for Australian news outlets to operate in China at present”.
“The Herald and The Age are committed for the long term to providing comprehensive coverage of China, and its relationship with Australia and the region,” she said.
Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute and a former China correspondent for The Australian and the Financial Times, said foreign correspondents were now effectively under the management of China’s security apparatus, rather than the foreign ministry.
Mr McGregor said it was unclear whether any Australian media organisation would be able to send a correspondent back to the country in the coming years.
“Beijing not only has to allow them to, but the media organisations would have to feel safe in sending them,” he said.
“In general terms, China is a vastly under-covered country given its importance – in part because it is so opaque, but that makes coverage of it all the more important, and we are losing a lot of it now.”
After landing in Sydney on Tuesday morning, Smith said the “late-night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now”.
“It’s great to be back home safely after a difficult five days,” he said.
AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury and editor Paul Bailey said the incident “targeting two journalists who were going about their normal reporting duties is both regrettable and disturbing and is not in the interests of a co-operative relationship between Australia and China”.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed the Australian government became concerned about the two journalists after Cheng’s arrest, describing the last week as a “very disappointing series of events”.
“We felt it was best they were able to stay with Australian officials on Australian premises while a number of these matters were addressed,” she told 2GB.
“Having done that … we were then able to assure they were then able to leave Beijing.”
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said it was “deeply regrettable” there was now no Australian media presence in China.
“We hope that Australian media organisations will be able to have their people on the ground in China again soon,” she said.
Australia’s relationship with China has deteriorated to its worst state since diplomatic relations were established in the early 1970s, with Beijing hitting Australia with billions of dollars of trade strikes after the Morrison government pushed for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.